My First Marathon (a toughie, but a goodie)

Ever since I started running four or five years ago, I considered people who ran marathons as a bit wrong in the head. I should know – I’m married to one. Not that it was the marathon itself that posed the biggest problem. Rather, it’s the dedication, commitment and hours and hours of training required over a period of months that seemed beyond me.

Then last year, I turned 41, and decided that it was time to challenge myself a bit more, to live less safely. Within 17 days of my birthday I’d entered the Stour Valley Marathon, a challenging trail run through the beautiful countryside of the Stour Valley along the Essex/Suffolk border – otherwise known as Constable Country. I was ridiculously excited – I’ve always enjoyed the thrill of off-road running, much more so than pounding the monotonous pavements, and so thought it would be a good idea to go for a trail marathon as my first one.

Fast forward seven months, and with a week to go until the race, the idea of taking on such a challenging event as my first marathon didn’t seem quite so clever. With three days of torrential rain in the run up to the race, reports of flooding on the course, warnings about bulls in fields, electric fences to be ducked under, plus a forecast of temperatures in the mid-20’s for the actual day, I was seriously starting to doubt my sanity. Add to that the ongoing problem of two ruptured ankle ligaments damaged four weeks after entering the marathon, and I was pretty close to checking myself into the nearest mental institution.

But as my afore-mentioned husband (whose previous marathon experience now came in very handy, rather than being a sign of wrong-headedness) kept saying to me – trust your training. And it was true – I’d prepared thoroughly, stuck to the plan, and done all the miles I needed to (343.5 of them, in fact). Many of those miles were done with the support of my Flyers family; I’d never have got through the plan without them.

And so race weekend arrived. Saturday followed a familiar pre-race pattern; thinking about the food I’d consume during the race, the clothes I’d wear during and after, the tissue I’d need to have with me in the event of a toilet emergency… Nerves kicked in mid-afternoon, but surprisingly by the time I’d packed my bags that evening and done everything I needed to, I felt much calmer.

As morning dawned, all I felt was excitement. The day was actually here! Being honest, when I signed up, I genuinely believed I wouldn’t make it; any one of my numerous health issues (back problem, shin splints, ankle issues, the incredibly boring list goes on) would see to that.  But amazingly, this creaky old body had held up, and was now preparing to run its longest distance ever.

A 6.45am start meant the roads to north Essex were blissfully clear, and together with my lovely family who came along to support me, we arrived at the village hall in good time to pick up numbers, fulfil the requisite number of toilet visits, participate in the obligatory Flyers photo call, listen to the briefing (‘there are lots of cows in the fields, but they’re all pretty docile….’), receive numerous good luck hugs, and finally line up at the start.

stour valley marathon pic 1

As for the race itself, the 6+ hours it took me would take probably the same amount of time to write about. So I’ll restrict myself to just a few highlights…

The Support:

There were four checkpoints along the course, and a big group of Flyers drove around the countryside in convoy to support at three of them. I don’t have adequate words to express how mind-blowingly wonderful it was to see and hear them each time. Someone needs to do a clinical study into the effect on the brain of hearing supporters cheering for you whilst running races; there must be some chemical reason for just how much of a boost it can give you. Thank you, thank you, thank you to each and every one of you.

The Weather:

It was hot. Thankfully not as hot as Halstead Marathon a few weeks ago, but still very hot. The day dawned a little bit hazy, and I’d hoped it would stay that way. But no, after an hour or so of running, the sun had burnt off the clouds, and was now beating down on us relentlessly. Brief respite was found in the woodlands every now and then, but much of the race was run through open fields where the heat was pretty hard to bear. Running through a flooded field just before mile 15 was actually a cool relief.

The Terrain:

The course has a little bit of everything; tarmac roads, ploughed fields, grassy meadows, woodland paths, gravel tracks, muddy lanes. There were plenty of hills; a particularly horrific one within the first mile, then another one through a picturesque cornfield that really, genuinely never seemed to end. The one at mile 20, just after checkpoint 4, was another highlight.

stour valley marathon pic 3

The freshly ploughed field about half way through was an interesting diversion; deep, regular ruts lent a lunar-feel to the landscape, and as the only way to cross it was to leap gazelle-like from one peak to another, it was as fun as it was energy-sapping.

stour valley marathon pic 4

Despite the challenging terrain, every step took us through beautiful, glorious countryside which was an absolute joy to run through. We are so blessed to have such beauty right on our doorsteps, and the opportunity to do something we love as much as running in such incredible surroundings.

The Wildlife:

I might have mentioned the cows once or twice. Being a born and bred South Londoner, I’m not entirely comfortable around farmyard animals. Actually, I’m flipping terrified of them. But my earlier point about challenging myself applies here, and so I found myself walking through a couple of fields inhabited by large herds of cows without passing out through sheer terror. I’ll count that as a win.

stour valley marathon pic 2

The Verdict:

I absolutely loved it! Signing up was the best decision I ever made. Yes, the training was hard. Yes, many a morning dawned when the thought of heading out on my own for 6, or 8, or 10 miles made me want to weep. But every step paid off, and I’m incredibly proud to have joined the marathon club. As a race, it can’t be underestimated – it is tough, and the self-navigation element definitely adds to the difficulty. But as a no-frills, small scale event, it was fantastic to participate in. The post-race picnic, massages and pub visit were the icing on the cake (although thinking about it, I don’t think there was any actual cake).

If you’re just starting out on your running journey, don’t ever rule out doing a marathon. When I did my first 10k, I said I’d never do a half-marathon. When I did my first half-marathon – yes, you guessed it, I said I’d never do a marathon. But the sense of achievement you get from doing one is immense, and changes the way you think about yourself forever.

stour valley marathon pic 6

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